A few days before Mother’s funeral we went to see Olive, who lives about an hour from Banham. She is now 98, and has been a life-long friend of Priscilla’s mother. They attended the same chapel as children and shared much of their lives together. Letters – lots of letters – and until very recently phone calls, kept them in touch when they weren’t living near each other.
“I’m always smiling,” says Olive. “I don’t try to smile … it just happens.” That’s true. Priscilla makes a cup of tea and we spend over an hour together, talking about memories of friendship, mischief (giggling in the back row of chapel, would you believe!), growing up, and later years. There are a few anecdotes relating tales we already knew about, and quite a few that open up new insights into Mother’s life and character. We speak too of God’s care and grace towards us and our families. It is overwhelmingly a happy time and it is great to see a 98-year-old sparkle with life, joy, and thankfulness to God.
But there is sadness too. “There are so many gaps,” Olive declares with sudden sadness. Somehow I immediately know what she means. She’s not talking about gaps in memories, or things done or not done. “I see only empty spaces,” she says passionately. For the first time in my life I think I understand the loneliness of old age. She visualises a world once filled with her friends, a picture gallery if you like: now all she can see on the walls of the galleries of her life are empty frames. “They’ve all died.”
It’s not that she hasn’t got family and friends and visitors … “How can she be lonely?” one might carelessly ask. But the living cannot replace the dead. There may be new pictures to hang in the ever-shrinking world of the present, but the empty frames in the galleries of years gone by cannot be filled.
It seems to me that we should not try to fill those empty frames. As we comfort and encourage those who have lost friends, family, a spouse, and more; we should not imagine someone else can fill the empty frames. True, new friends, new family, even a new spouse may bring vibrant companionship. But they are not replacements for the dead. We may do best to help slip good memories into the empty frames, rather than to try to replace or ignore them.
But there’s more. If the best hope we have as we age is a vision of an ever increasing catalogue of the dead, the aged are (to borrow from Paul) of all people to be most pitied. The present companionship of Christ is as necessary for the aging as is preparing them for death. Many a faithful aged Christian has anticipated death in Christ with confidence of an eternity with him: it’s the present they sometimes struggle with. We all need to cultivate companionship with Christ, and we need to nurture that with ever increasing intimacy in those who age ahead of us. His is a friendship that fulfils every present need as well as eternity; his is a companionship that never fails; his is a love that is never exhausted. There are no gaps in his picture frame, and no gallery in life too big for him to fill.
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5 (Deuteronomy 31:6)